Signature Decades

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Certain decades in our history have a distinctive signature, an immediately recognizable identity through which we can contextualize, in a general way, a wide range of popular cultural phenomena.  The Roaring Twenties (Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age), for example, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies, and the Eighties, all have their profiles, which, while certainly the result of a good deal of generalization, really do outline broad cultural trends.  The Sixties really were an era of cultural disruption, even revolution, while the Seventies saw a cultural retreat from the brink amid a depoliticized popular culture characterized by such musical trends as country-inspired “soft rock,” “glam” music, and “disco,” with truck drivers, preppies, yuppies and punks all emerging as popular cultural figures of note.  The Eighties, for their part, really did bring in a harder edged note: an urban oriented popular culture musically divided between rap and heavy metal, with street gangs and stock brokers becoming cultural icons. And the Nineties?  Well, in the beginning it looked like that would be the decade of “grunge” and a revival of the Sixties environmentally oriented counter culture.  But all that pretty much collapsed as a mass cultural phenomenon by mid-decade, as a new, more Friday-casual business culture went pop, led by the explosion.  But just ask anyone to describe the Nineties as a decade and see what you get.  There simply isn’t a clear signature there.  And now that we are in the third year of the Twenty-Teens, has any signature for the Naughts emerged?  Heck, we can’t even agree on what to call the first decade of the twenty-first century.  We can point to a lot of historically profound events--the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terror, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the advent of the Great Recession, and the election of America’s first black president—but none of this is reflected in any obvious way in the popular culture of the period (certainly not in the way that the Vietnam War touched the Sixties). Perhaps someone might nominate the Naughts as the Social Media decade, or perhaps, more precisely, the GoogleBook decade (FaceGoogle?)  But Facebook, Google, et. al, are media, just television is a medium, and while television has profoundly affected every decade since its invention, we do not identify any decade as the TV decade.  So while I think that a case could be made for the current popular cultural era being dominated by such media, I’m not sure that any particular signature emerges. Which brings me to my point: for a long time now American popular culture has not been terribly susceptible to any clear decadal identity.  I’m not sure why this should be the case, but I do think that it is worth thinking about semiotically.  Is it due to the fact that our popular culture is so diverse, so divided into sub-categories and sub-sub-categories created in large part for the purposes of niche marketing?  To put this another way, is it because we do not really share a common culture anymore, making no cultural trend large enough to provide a signature for its time? Or perhaps the causes are darker than that.  Even a casual glance at the political culture in America today reveals deep and hostile divisions, not only between “Blue State” and “Red State” Americans (or MSNBC vs. Fox News Americans) but within political parties themselves (consider what pundits refer to as the “civil war” raging within the Republican party right now). I’m really not sure what the answer is, but I am open to suggestions.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.